The Cleveland Browns NFL team was one of the first to create a plan aimed at treating players struggling with addiction to drugs and alcohol. The program, which is a breakthrough in how teams and coaches deal with drug use in sports, became known informally as the “Inner Circle.”

Former Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano saw a different side of dealing with drug use in sports in the 1980s and he wanted to find something more effective.

The drug policy before the implementation of the Inner Circle was full of threats and ultimatums. Rutigliano didn’t see the “get tough” approach as being effective. He saw that it did more harm than good and didn’t address the root issue of addiction.

Rutigliano’s goal to help approach drug use in sports and addiction differently was based on firsthand experience. The coach experienced one of his players contemplating suicide as a way to cope and deal with his addiction problem. It was at that point Rutigliano saw the current approach wasn’t working. As he saw it, finding a better way to help players was a life-or-death situation that required a better solution.

From a “Get Tough” Policy to Suicidal Thoughts

Athletes are expected to function at peak physicality to perform in their jobs and retain their jobs. This can create a complicated situation for athletes who use drugs. An athletic career is constantly threatened if the athlete isn’t successful in competition. Professional athletes face tremendous pressure. When athletes struggle with addiction or a mental health disorder, they may be fearful of the consequences of drug use.

The usual result of athletes that use drugs, including in the NFL, is a suspension. When NFL players are suspended for substance abuse, it can make the problem worse. Not only does it not help the player deal with their addiction, but they may feel as if they’ve lost everything as a result of their drug use. This can then lead to situations like Rutigliano experienced, with a player telling him he was thinking about suicide.

Some of the factors that play a role in substance abuse in professional sports include:

  • Untreated Mental Illness: Mental illness and substance abuse often occur together. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people with mood or anxiety disorders are around twice as likely as the general population to also have a substance use disorder. For professional athletes, there may be a stigma surrounding mental illness that discourages them from receiving treatment. They may then turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate.
  • Pressure to Perform: There is immense pressure on professional athletes who have million-dollar contracts to perform. That can increase the chances of using illicit substances.
  • Injuries and Physical Pain: Professional athletes, particularly in contact sports like football, deal with sports injuries. Even common sports injuries may be treated with highly addictive painkillers. A study on drug abuse in athletes found that 52% of professional football players reported using opioids at some point in their career and 71% reporting misusing using them. The desire to treat pain and get back on the field can lead to addiction.

Establishing the Inner Circle

As a way to better help athletes using drugs, Coach Rutigliano came together with Dr. Gregory Collins of the Cleveland Clinic to develop the framework of the Inner Circle in 1980. The idea of the Inner Circle is that the human brain is no different than other body parts, and when there is an issue with the brain, it requires professional diagnosis, treatment and supervision.

The Inner Circle program includes professional treatment from medical specialists, counselors, psychiatrists and others. A dedication to anonymity is critical to its ongoing success. Even other people on the Browns team don’t know who is in the Inner Circle. According to reports, at one point, there were 12 players participating in the program simultaneously.

A Model for the Entire NFL

The Inner Circle framework has become a model for the entire NFL and it is reshaping the view of athletes using drugs in sports. Rather than being stigmatized or suspended, athletes who used drugs are being treated for a medical disorder. Even so, the NFL substance abuse policy remains strict and players must regularly submit for drug tests. The NFL substance abuse program calls for testing even in the off-season. A few years ago, when high-profile player Johnny Manziel decided to enter rehab, the team stood behind him, showing a shift in perspectives regarding drug use in professional sports.

In 2007, Rutigliano was given the Bronze Key Award from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependencies. He calls the Inner Circle his greatest career achievement.

University Hospital

When Rutigliano started the Inner Circle, he worked with the Cleveland Clinic. In 2015, the Browns ended their relationship with the Cleveland Clinic and went on to work with the University Hospitals. It’s currently unclear exactly how this change could have impacted the Browns’ substance abuse program. 

The hope is that as we continue to learn more about the disease of addiction and drug use in sports, the NFL substance abuse program and others like it, will become less focused on punishment and direct players toward effective treatment.

If you are struggling with substance abuse and mental health concerns, you aren’t alone and we can help. Contact The Recovery Village to learn more.